Photograph: Tsafrir Abayov/AP
Israeli tourists stroll through the quiet village of Ghajar, buying ice cream and fresh juice from enterprising new street vendors. Public statues of Imam Ali, revered in Shia Islam, as well as Lebanese farmers across the valley are curiously photographed.
Ghajar is perhaps one of the strangest places in the Middle East: a Syrian Alawite village, home to 2,700 people in the occupied Golan Heights, which straddles the Blue Line separating Israel and Lebanon. It’s more peaceful and pretty than its location suggests: grand houses are brightly painted, fountains and statues adorn roundabouts, and the community benefits from a well-kept public park full of flowers and trees.
A military zone that has been closed for 22 years, Ghajar only allows visitors entry with special permission from the city council and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
But at the beginning of September, without any notice, the IDF and the Israeli police announced that they would no longer check identity documents at the checkpoint at the entrance to the village. The IDF did not comment when asked why the restrictions had been lifted.
Hani, a 46-year-old man from Nazareth, was one of an estimated 3,000 visitors to Ghajar during the Simchat Torah holiday in October. “I often visit the Golan during the apple season. I heard Ghajar was open and I wanted to come,” he said.
“It’s very interesting. Let’s hope that the whole border will open up one day, allowing cultural exchanges. I took the locals for Druze,” he said, referring to the Arabic-speaking ethnic minority living mainly in Syria, Lebanon and Israel.
Miriam Wannous, 22, a seamstress and fashion design student, can’t remember a time when the village was open. “They closed Ghajar in 2000, the year I was born,” she said. “When it’s busy and crowded with guests, it’s weird. At first it bothered us, we were very safe before. I always felt comfortable here, because Ghajar is like a giant family where everyone knows each other.
“My friends from Nazareth University were shocked to learn that we lead modern lifestyles, I guess they assumed we had an outdated mindset. Everyone loves to visit, my friend and her husband had a great time today.”
The Ghajar community’s secret religion began life as an offshoot of Shia Islam: it shares characteristics with Neoplatonism and Christianity, and some of its roughly 3 million followers believe in reincarnation.
Alawite dress codes distinguish them from other religious and ethnic groups: the skin should be covered in dresses for older women and skirts for younger women, but they do not cover their hair. The village is conservative and it is rare for men or women to leave Ghajar and build their lives elsewhere.
Ghajar is also renowned for its traditional Syrian-Lebanese dishes such as shanklish – large, thick, dry crumbly balls of cheese prepared in a matter of days and coated in a special blend of herbs and spices. Mitabla, wheat and corn cooked in milk, and bisara, a bulgur and garlic stew, are other local specialties.
“Over time, people’s mindsets change to become more modern and open, and with Ghajar opening up to guests, the level of caution might change. It is already moving slowly,” Wannous said.
Unlike the rest of the Golan, which Israel has occupied since 1967, Ghajar is treated as an official part of Israel: people here were pressured to take Israeli citizenship in 1981.
In 2000, when the IDF withdrew from Lebanon, UN officials proposed the Blue Line between the countries, leaving Ghajar split in two. The Lebanese government was supposed to take full control of the village after the 2006 war, but diplomatic efforts were sidelined by the outbreak of civil war in Syria.
Today, a fence surrounds the entire perimeter of the village, rather than inside, and the de facto boundary line has become the Hasbani River, which runs through a small valley between Ghajar and Wazzani, a Lebanese hamlet in the other side.
Conditions here have not always been conducive to tourism. The village was once a favored drug smuggling route for Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shia militant group and political movement, and the area has seen several bouts of fighting between Hezbollah and the Israeli army.
But despite its checkered history, local officials say that since Ghajar opened, the village has attracted up to 4,000 visitors a day, many of whom are intrigued by this previously off-limits spot. New street stalls sell coffee and snacks to tourists, as well as autumn apples and shanklish. A new restaurant at the entrance to the village is called Falafel on the Border.
Betia, a 44-year-old woman from Carmel visiting with her husband and children, drank iced tea while gazing at the Hasbani and Lebanese farms, just a few hundred meters away. “I have always wanted to visit Ghajar and finally got the chance to come and experience this unique place. The locals are incredibly welcoming. It is a very colorful, clean and flowery place.
“It’s not strange to see Lebanese people there,” she said. “We went to Jordan and Egypt. One day, hopefully, there will be peace.
The sudden and unexpected influx of visitors has been somewhat upsetting for the people of Ghajar. The municipality has struggled to find enough parking spaces for tourists and is currently using the village football pitch. Visitors are requested to be clean and tidy, respectful of Ghajar culture, and to leave before 8 p.m.
“There were rumors the week before it opened but no one knew it was going to happen. I guess they also didn’t give notice in 2000 when they closed the village,” Jamal said Al Khateeb, which started running tours for small groups of visitors in 2021.
“The advantages are obvious: it should bring money to the region. But 4,000 a day is a big number and requires planning. Maybe it will calm down but some people are already on their third or fourth visit; we don’t know what will happen. It’s still a militarized zone. Things can change here at any time.
• The title of this article was changed on November 8, 2022 to better convey that Ghajar is on the Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel.